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Research Team

Diana Bravo, B.S. UTEP, Graduate Research Assistant

Diana Bravo

My research focuses on examining sex differences in rodent brain and behavior. Specifically, I aim to determine if experiences like learning and alcohol exposure can affect males and females differently. I have previously found sex differences in performance on the 5-choice serial reaction time task (5-CSRTT): in controls, males outperform females, and when exposed to repeated binge alcohol, females are impaired but males are not. As the 5-CSRTT is dependent on the frontal cortex, I am examining this region to determine if sex differences are also present in apical and basilar dendrites. My goal is to quantify dendritic arborization and spines of pyramidal neurons to determine if there is a relationship between 5-CSRTT performance and dendritic arborization. Eventually, I will examine whether binge alcohol exerts sex-dependent effects on prefrontal cortex dendrites.


Kevin Gehm, B.S. Illinois State University, Graduate Research Assistant

Kevin Gehm

I joined the Brain Health & Plasticity Lab because of my interest in how both exercise and alcohol impact brain development and function. My current research is largely focused on exercise and the benefits it has for the brain. A good deal of research has focused on the benefits of exercising in adulthood (like reducing the risk of dementia, for example). Much less is known, however, about the effects of exercise that occur while the brain is still developing. I am interested in determining whether developmental exercise has life-long effects on the brain’s ability to respond to experience. I am therefore quantifying new neurons in the hippocampus of rats that exercised during development and then again in adulthood. Because exercise drives generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, I want to see if exercise during development will augment the capacity of the hippocampus to make new neurons when exercise is re-introduced in adulthood. Through this, I aim to determine if exercise in adolescence can augment the neuroplastic potential of the adult brain.


Caitlin Kennedy, B.S. Stevenson University, Graduate Research Assistant


With the ever-increasing aging population, there is an increased need for research focused on cognitive function and decline. Studies have shown that age-related cognitive decline is associated with changes to the morphology of dendrites and spines in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain that is linked to learning, attention and cognitive flexibility. In middle aged and aged populations, exercise has been shown to enhance cognition. Our previous research has shown that exercise improved performance on the 5-Choice Serial Reaction Time Task (5-CSRTT), a cognitive task that relies on the mPFC. My current research seeks to determine the morphological and physiological impacts exercise can have on the mPFC in middle-aged female rats. Specifically, I am quantifying the length and bifurcations of dendrites and density of their spines to determine whether exercise-driven dendritic alterations are associated with enhanced 5-CSRTT performance.


Erisa Met-Hoxha, B.S. UH, Postbaccalaureate Research Assistant


My research interests fall under the umbrella of learning and memory. Specifically, I am interested in how fear and stress modify the neural circuitry of learning and memory, as well as how the involved regions communicate with each other. Currently, we are examining perineuronal nets (PNNs), lattice-like structures found in the extracellular matrix that play an important role in restricting brain plasticity. While exercise has been shown to improve brain plasticity, the opposite effect is seen with alcohol. The projects I am involved in aim to answer 1) whether binge-alcohol induced PNN accumulation can be ameliorated by exercise and 2) whether exposure to exercise in adolescence allows for a healthier response to psychological stress.


Pierce Popson, Undergraduate Research Assistant


I am interested in neurodegeneration and substance use disorder. While growing up, I often saw some of the side effects that come with using a drug like alcohol and what happens to a person struggling with their mental health. These experiences led me to study the biochemical mechanisms by which these changes occur in the brain and possible treatments. I am currently involved in an investigation into the role exercise may have in its neuroprotection in a binge alcohol consumption rat model via extracellular matrix, protein lattice structures known as perineuronal nets (PNNs). These structures surround the cell body of specific neurons where they modulate neuroplasticity and neuroprotection. Given this, we are also interested in the role PNNs may play in the changes induced by early life exposure to exercise and subsequent adulthood psychological stress. I hope to take the information we discover here and translate it into the clinical environment. I believe the understanding of how exercise directly plays a role in the pathophysiology of psychological disorders will help society see this therapy as a legitimate intervention.


Lab Alumni

Emma Perez, Ph.D. 2020

Laian Najjar, Ph.D. 2020

Rebecca West, Ph.D. 2019

Jessica Wooden, Ph.D. 2018

Emily Barton, Ph.D. 2017

Mark Maynard, Ph.D. 2016

Iman Sahnoune, M.A. 2014

Darby Hawley, Ph.D. 2012

Jennifer Parra, M.A. 2011